by SLICK TRACY, Hotel Detective & Food Sleuth -
Uncovering the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
If you are a musician, especially a blues musician, you have already heard about Clarksdale, Mississippi and the Ground Zero Blues Club. Well, most of the publicity, truthfully, happens because the famous actor Morgan Freeman is a local native and a co-owner of this unique place.
“They nursed it, rehearsed it, and gave out the news, that the South-land had given birth to the Blues.” That is the song I remember learning and playing on my trumpet many years ago when I learned blues music from my band director.
True aficionados of blues music claim that it originated in the area of Clarksdale, along the banks of the Mississippi, known as the Mississippi Delta. The music worked its magic up and down the river until it finally settled in the Memphis area.
My visit was courtesy of Hyundai, who were sponsoring a special 'Ride-and-Drive' that day and this was intended to be a lunch stop along the route. Inside, there was a live band, an eclectic atmosphere, lots of patrons, and good food. Because of the additional people on hand, the food service was extremely lacking. Worse than that, it was very, very slow. I am sure that on a normal weekday, that service would be much better.
The Ground Zero Blues Club was opened in 2001 and hosts live music four nights a week. They feature locals as well as national blues acts. Occasionally, well-known rock groups will surprise guests with their performances. Owners are Bill Lucket, a local Clarksdale businessman, Morgan Freeman, local resident and well-known actor, and Howard Stovall, formerly with the Stovall Plantation, childhood home of Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in nearby Rolling Fork, Mississippi. He is known as the 'father of modern Chicago blues.'
The exterior and interior leave much to desired in the way of modern fixtures and clean walls. In fact, names and such are scribbled on almost any space throughout the old building. A long bar faces two pool tables, which must be passed to reach the picnic-style tables and bench chairs that face the larger-than-expected stage.
Upstairs are 7 rentable rooms called 'apartments.' The rates range from $125 to $175 per night, depending upon size and number of guests. The building was built and used as a cotton-grading warehouse. Sellers would submit their cotton samples and the fibers would be 'graded' by holding the fluffy crop up against a skylight in the upstairs area of the building. It was widely reported that some of the best 'eyes' in the business of Mississippi's cotton-grading business worked at this location.
The Ground Zero Blues Club serves a fairly decent variety of down-home southern-style cooking. This includes fried catfish, pulled pork, salads, fried chicken – well, almost anything fried is available. The club is available for private parties, they say, but I am not sure how they would make that work out. They do offer catering as an option as well.
While taking a photo of the exterior, I couldn't help but notice an older gentlemen slowing exiting the front door and working his way slowly across the porch area towards the steps. He was using a cane, but what caught my eye was his ball cap. It was the Army Airborne Insignia. After a few exchanged remarks about the Army and Vietnam, he sat down and started talking. His name was Josh “Razorblade” Stewart. He was born and reared in Clarksdale, and except for his military duty, had lived there all his life. He served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam, than came home to Clarksdale to be a police officer. He even took a time to be a long-distance truck driver. But mostly, all he wanted to do was sing the blues. He not only has sung blues music all his live, he has written many songs.
Josh stood up and asked if I wanted to hear his music. How could I resist? We walked across the street to his large SUV and he got inside. He dug around and found a CD and put it in the player of his vehicle, turning the sound up fairly loud. I was mesmerized. His singing was great.
I asked about the inspiration for his song-writing, knowing most blues music comes from heartaches, sadness, and more. He told me several of his songs had been written because of the heartache he had when he returned from his war-time overseas. He came home to a wife that was pregnant with another man's baby. Josh said Blues is generally reflective of the suffering that one experiences in life and it just makes its way into the music.
Razorblade and I had only met about 20 minutes earlier. I thought to myself, “Skip lunch. This is an opportunity that comes very little to very few.” Possibly it was the blues environment of the town and the location, but our conversation was deep. Mostly it was me asking questions and Josh relating life's moments. After what seemed a long, long time, other drivers were leaving the lunch break, finding their Hyundai cars, and getting back on the driving route. Razorblade would not allow me to leave his vehicle until he explained his interpretation of the dollar sign.
Josh drew a dollar sign on the back of the CD cover. He said that this was a guide to living your life. Draw the large S and put a line down through it. That line intersects in three places. He pointed out that your life moves along to the left and right, but that you will encounter several crossroads. The first crossroad is being born and having your childhood with your parents. He thinks the youth and teenagers of today are too quick to turn and try to take a quick route to the next crossroad. Instead, they should do all the hard work necessary to navigate along that big curve (in the S) because this helps them understand the basics of living.
Josh kept talking. If you are lucky, you reach the next crossroad which is about being middle-aged. It is the half-way point in the straight line and the half-way point in the large S. By this point in life, you should have achieved most of what you had wanted, but most people will still have to travel along another large S curve to reach their final crossroad. Only a few will make it the short way.
That final part of life, from middle age to the end of your life is often a struggle. Josh had started at the bottom of the S when he began his story. Now he was at the top of the S, having followed the S curves around both directions. He took his pencil up the straight line to the top. He said, “It may have been a struggle in life all the way, but now you have reached Heaven, or some simply call it contentment.” Josh emphasized that it is important to hit that last crossroad and go upwards to contentment. “Don't follow the S curve all the way around to the end” He says that is when a person gets greedy and mistreats other people.
Since our encounter, although brief, I have been unable to look at a dollar sign without thinking about Josh 'Razorblade' Stewart and the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Clarksdale is located south of Memphis, east of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and north of Vicksburg. The town is steeped in history, but don't just pass through. Stop at the Ground Zero Blue Club for lunch or the evening's music. If you are lucky enough to see an older gentlemen wearing an Airborne ball cap and a necklace with a tiny razorblade emblem, stop him. Be prepared to spend a lot of time talking, but it won't be time wasted. It will be time well-spent.
THE GOOD: great blues music, fun atmosphere
THE BAD: very slow service if there is a large crowd
THE UGLY: don't expect everything to be modern and clean – it isn't.